An HTOED-Based Contrastive Study of the Color Concept between English and Chinese


Color is both a general concept which interrelates with other concepts and a category which encompasses various subcategories. Chinese and English are of different language systems which result in the potential differences in language cognition. The present research aims to reveal the differences and similarities of the same concept in different cultures like English and Chinese by comparing color as a concept and a category between English and Chinese on the basis of the Historical Thesaurus of Oxford English Dictionary.

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Su, Y. and Cho, Y. (2020) An HTOED-Based Contrastive Study of the Color Concept between English and Chinese. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 8, 395-404. doi: 10.4236/jss.2020.87032.

1. Introduction

In discussing cognitive differences in different languages like Chinese and English, color is often regarded as the window and the starting point for the comparison, including color categorization and color concept. Color categorization has aroused lots of interest among linguists, as every language has color terms which are often used to categorize colors. According to Berlin and Kay’s Basic Color Theory, there are seven stages of color evolution, and they categorize English as a language of Stage VII with 11 basic color terms and Chinese or Mandarin as a language of Stage V with 6 basic color terms. But they also note that the case of Chinese basic color terms is problematic as to color terms like grey, pink, blue, green and brown as they admit more data for Chinese terms in their future research (Berlin & Kay, 1969: p. 42).

Firstly, color is looked up in The Historical Thesaurus of Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter HTOED) as a concept, aiming to see its interrelations with other concepts. Secondly, lexicographic comparison of the term color as well as its derivative forms in different languages is searched for more information of color conceptualization which lays the foundation for color models in Chinese and English.

2. Theoretical Framework

Though color is a feature of matters in the world, we may conceptualize colors into other concepts. The HTOED is organized in terms of concepts and shows the historical development of concepts. And the concepts are listed in a hierarchical manner. There are altogether three general concepts: the world (01), the mind (02) and the society (03). The world is further divided into seventeen sub-concepts, among which color (01.10.09) is arranged as a subsidiary concept to matter (01.10). The mind entails seven sub-concepts: Mental Capacity (02.01), Attention and judgment (02.02), Goodness and badness (02.03), Emotion (02.04), Will (02.05), Possession (02.06) and Language (02.07). And the society includes thirteen sub-concepts, such as Society and the community (03.01), Inhabiting and dwelling (03.02), Armed hostility (03.03), Authority (03.04), Law (03.05), Morality (03.06), Education (03.07), Faith (03.08), communication (03.09), Travel and travelling (03.10), Occupation and work (03.11), Trade and finance (03.12) and Leisure (03.13), as shown below.

01 The world

01.01 The earth 01.02 Life (01.02.01 Source/principle of life 01.02.02 Biology 01.02.03 The body 01.02.04 Death) 01.03 Health and disease 01.04 People 01.05 Animals 01.06 Plants 01.07 Food and drink 01.08 Textiles and clothing 01.09 Physical sensation 01.10 Matter (01.10.01 Alchemy 01.10.02 Chemistry 01.10.03 Properties of materials 01.10.04 Constitution of matter 01.10.05 Liquid 01.10.06 Gas 01.10.07 Physics 01.10.08 Light 01.10.09 Colour 01.10.10 Condition of matter) 01.11 Existence and causation 01.12 Space 01.13 Time 01.14 Movement 01.15 Action/operation 01.16 Relative properties 01.17 The supernatural

02 The mind

02.01 Mental Capacity 02.02 Attention and judgment 02.03 Goodness and badness 02.04 Emotion 02.05 Will 02.06 Possession 02.07 Language

03 The society

03.01 Society and the community 03.02 Inhabiting and dwelling 03.03 Armed hostility 03.04 Authority 03.05 Law 03.06 Morality 03.07 Education 03.08 Faith 03.09 Communication 03.10 Travel and travelling 03.11 Occupation and work 03.12 Trade and finance 03.13 Leisure1

Taking the word color as a key word via the search engine, we can get a total of 43 results: n. The body::Complexion color (1297-1634)|01 n. The body::Redness::with health color (a1300-)|01 vi. The body::Redness::blush color (1721/1800-1755 Dict. +1787-)|04 n. The body::Brain::faculties of color (1840-)|01 n. Ethnicities::Division by physical peculiarities::racial characteristic color (1796-)|11 n. Physics::Quark::property giving strong interaction color (1973-)|01.21 n. Hearing/noise::Thing heard::sound quality of sound color (1866-)

01.10.09 n. Color color (1398-)

01.10.09|01 n. Color::a color color (c1290-)

01.10.09|25 n. Color::heraldic tincture color (c1450 Scots+1486-) vt. Color color (c1325-) n. Color::coloring matter color (1580-) vi. Change color color (1667-)|02.01 n. Color::Blue coloring matter::blue pigment::specific ultramarine blue/color (1698-)|01 vt. Exist in/be situated in::Introduce/bring something in::infuse color (1835-)

01.16.02 n. Kind/sort color (1600-)|01 n. Intelligibility::Meaning of linguistic unit::shade of color (1657-1826)|03 n. Knowledge::Duping, making a fool of::gullible person, dupe color (1719)|01 vt. Know, be aware of::Pretend, stimulate, feign::lay claim to, personate color (a1502-a1655+1726Dict.) n. Knowledge::Semblance, outward show color (1297-1863) vt. Know, be aware of::Present speciously color (1377-1862)|08.01n. Knowledge::Semblance, outward show::specious quality::statement exhibiting color (1429-1818) vt. Know, be aware of::Misrepresent color (1393-) vt. Test::Modify, qualify color (1835-) n. Aspects of Emotion::Quality appealing to emotion/imagination color (1938-)|04.01 vi. Manifest itself::change color::be/become red with emotion color (1721-1755 Dict. +1787-)

02.05.06|02.06 n. Motivation::specious motive/pretext::motive:: alleged/allegeable motive/excuse color (c1380-1724)|09 n. Linguistic::Vowel::qualities of color (1934-1948) 02|13.08 n. Administration of justice::Pleading::a pleading/ plea:: false plea color (1607-1824)

03.05. 15|08 n. Legal right:: Apparent right color (1531-Law)|05 vt. Behove/be the duty of::Excuse (a person/fault):: extenuate color (1377-1862)|04 n. Indication::Heraldic tincture::color color (c1450-)|04 n. Prining::Arrangement/appearance of printed matter::qualities of print color (1808-)|06 n. The Arts::Musical sound::timber/quality color (1866-) n. The Arts::Expression color (1597+1887-)|02 n. The Arts::Art of coloring::general effect/scheme color (1661-)|09 n. The Arts::Engraving::representation of color color (1784-)|02 adj. Pertaining to the Arts::Pertaining to photography::color color (1872-) vt. The Arts::Embellish color (c1300-)|03 n. The Arts::Fiction::a work of fiction color (1509-)|04 n. Sport::Player/sportsman::at college/university color (1955-)

From the results, it is clear to see that though color is listed as among the first batch of general concepts, it is closely associated with other concepts, related with the three layers of concepts such as concepts of the world (01)—Life (01.02), People (01.04), Physical sensation (01.09), Matter (01.10), Existence and causation (01.11), concepts of the mind (02) including Mental Capacity (02.01), Attention and judgment (02.02), Emotion (02.04), Will (02.05), Language (02.07), and concepts of the society (03) like Law (03.05), Morality (03.06), Communication (03.09), and Leisure (03.13). The interrelation between color and other concepts can be shown in Figure 1:

Figure 1. Interrelations between color and other concepts in HTOED.

Figure 1 shows a format of relations between color and other concepts. The color concept involves with many other concepts, but not every involves metaphorical thinking. Or put it more precisely, there is a hierarchical system of metaphorical associations between color and other concepts.

3. Color and Its Interrelation with Other Concepts in HTOED

Viewed from the HTOED, the color concept is listed as a sub-concept of matter (01.10), which is subsidiary to the world (01). Color terms usually co-occur with words of other sub-concepts of the world (01), metaphorically referring to other sub-concepts of the mind (02) and the society (03). It lists 10 basic colors as sub-concepts of Color (01.10.9): white/whiteness (, black/blackness (, red/redness (, green/greenness (, yellow/yellowness (, blue/blueness (, brown/ brownness (, grey/greyness (, purple/purpleness (, orange (

And each color is semantically related with sub-concepts of the three general concepts—the World (01), the Mind (02) and the Society (03)—in Table 1, as shown above. Table 1 shows the color concept in HTOED is frequently associated with other concepts, such as Animals (01.05), Life (01.02), Matter (01.10), Emotion (02.04), Authority (03.04), Occupation and work (03.11), and Leisure (03.13). There are three concepts not included Space (01.12), Movement (01.14), and Language (02.07).

In the case of Chinese color terms, because HTOED is English-language anchored, the concepts related with color terms in Chinese are abstracted on the basis of HTOED, as shown in Table 2.

And a comparison of related concepts with colors in Chinese and English in HTOED is made by referring to two influential dictionaries of native such as LDOCE and CCD languages and the result is shown in Table 3. From Table 3, it is clear to see that Chinese and English share some commonplaces in conceptualizing colors. Both cultures associate color with Life (01.02), Health and disease (01.03), People (01.04), Plants (01.06), Food and drink (01.07), Textile and clothing (01.08), Physical sensation (01.09), Matter (01.10), Mental capacity (02.01), Attention and judgment (02.02), Goodness and badness (02.03), Emotion (02.04), Authority (03.04), Morality (03.06), Occupation and work (03.11), Trade and finance (03.12), and Leisure (03.13).

Of course, there are cultural differences still to be seen. In Chinese white and red are more metaphorical than those in English. And as to green and yellow, Chinese and English have strikingly different conceptualizations. But the greatest difference lies in the conceptualization of blue, which carries few metaphorical extensions in Chinese. Brown and orange are metaphorical in English but not in Chinese. The different concepts in the cultures show different color conceptualizations, involving colors like white, black, red, yellow, green and grey.

Table 1. Concepts closely connected with the ten English colors in HTOED.

Table 2. Concepts closely connected with the ten named colors in HTOED.

Table 3. Comparison between Chinese and English.

4. Lexicographic Evidence for Color and Its Chinese Equivalents

Looking up color in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE), we can get the following lexicographical definitions shown as below:

Color 1) red, blue, yellow, green, brown, purple, etc.; 2) (also colours) the appearance of something as a result of the way it reflects light, especially when its appearance is very bright or is made up of a lot of different colors; 3) how dark or light someone’s skin is, which shows which race they belong to; 4) people/women/students etc. of color: (especially American English) people, women, etc., who are not white; 5) a substance such as paint or dye that makes something red, blue, yellow, etc.; 6) in full colour: a television programme, film, or photograph that is in colour contains colours such as red, green, and blue rather than just black and white; 7) if you have some colour in your face, your face is pink or red, usually because you are health or embarrassed; 8) interesting and exciting details or qualities that someone or something has

The third, fourth, seventh and eighth sense of color show the metaphorical thoughts of color in general. Metaphorically, there are LIFE IS COLOR, PEOPLE ARE COLOR, EMOTION IS COLOR, and MORALITY IS COLOR.

The Chinese equivalent of color is yán (颜), sè (色) or yán-sè (颜色). In Chinese most of the time one Chinese character is more expressive and productive than a phrase. Therefore, yán-sè (颜色), for many times, is often abbreviated as yán (颜) or sè (色). Table 4 shows lexicographical definition of yán (颜), sè (色) and yán-sè (颜色) in CCD. The definitions, to some degree, indicate Chinese people’s general conception of color. From the definitions of Chinese color, we can get a glimpse of how color is conceptualized. For one thing, color is a sensory perception of objects or people. For another, color is an abstract perception of people, such as facial expression or countenance, a woman’s beauty, lust, etc.

The word color has several derived adjective forms in English: colored, colorful and colorless. Each has specific variant lexicographical meanings. Firstly, three dictionaries, Oxford English Dictionary (OED), LDOCE and MacMillan English Dictionary (MED)2 are chosen for the lexicographical meanings of colored, colorful, and colorless. The three derivative forms of color have their Chinese equivalents respectively in CCD: yŏu-sè-de (有色的 colored)3, căi-sè-de (彩色的colorful)4, and wú-sè-de (无色的colorless). The senses for each entry in the three dictionaries are shown in Table 5 as follows.

In Chinese, color is connected with one’s inner face, a woman’s beauty, lust, etc., which is seldom found in English. Colored also has varied interpretation in the two cultures. In English colored people involves social etiquette and is regarded as a social taboo, while in Chinese colored glasses is not only colorized glasses, but also refers to people’s well-established biased opinion toward something or somebody. As for colorful, colorful language is conceived as a rude or

Table 4. Lexicographical definitions of yán (颜), sè (色) and yán-sè (颜色).

Table 5. Lexicographical meanings of colored, colorful, and colorless.

vulgar way of speaking in English. Sometimes colorful refers to something interesting or exciting, but often involving disreputable or illegal activities. In addition, colorful and colorless are thought to be a pair of opposite words, similar to the antonyms interesting and dull. But there is no such color conception in Chinese.

In Chinese, colorful is usually used positively, as in zhāng-dēng-jié-căi (张灯结彩to decorate with lanterns and colored festoons for celebration), măn-táng-căi (满堂彩applauses and a shout of appraise throughout the room), wén-căi (文彩the interesting or brilliant part in writing), căi-tóu (彩头good luck in business or gambling), etc. Another two metaphorical associations which are not found in English are the sixth and seventh senses, either. Taking these into consideration and looking them up in HTOED, the Chinese color is related to concepts like Blood (, Belief (, entertainment (, and The arts (

5. Conclusion

Based on the concepts and concept interrelations in HTOED as well as the lexicographic definitions of the term color and its derivative forms as well as colors both in CCD and LDOCE as shown in Table 2 and Table 3 in the former section, English and Chinese have some common color metaphorical extensions as well as the differences.

From the comparison, it can also be found that both languages color encompasses 10 common basic color terms, excluding pink. Among the 10 basic color terms, blue is lest metaphorical but white and red are most metaphorical in Chinese, while in English black, white, red, green and blue are more metaphorical than the other basic color terms.

The contrastive study of color as well of its derivative forms in English and Chinese dictionaries meanwhile help reveal the metaphorical potentials of color in different cultures and prove to some extent that both languages have some similarities in color concept.


1 . Extracted on September 15, 2017.

2The three dictionaries are all online free dictionaries. OED represents British English (BE) and MED is a dictionary of American English (AE). LDOCE is a dictionary which does not bias either BE or AE.

3Yŏu-sè-de (有色的 colored) is not an independent entry in CCD, but occurs in a part of sub-entry of yŏu (有having).

4Actually “colorful” has more than one equivalent: căi-sè-de (彩色的colorful), duō-căi-de (多彩的), wŭ-yán-liù-sè-de (五颜六色的), wŭ-căi-bīn-fēn-de (五彩缤纷的), and fēng-fù-duō-căi-de (丰富多彩的). duō-căi-de (多彩的) is a part of fēng-fù-duō-căi-de (丰富多彩的), but has similar meanings. Both are not independent entries in CCD. Similarly, wŭ-căi-bīn-fēn-de (五彩缤纷的) is not an independent entry. wŭ-yán-liù-sè-de (五颜六色的) is an independent entry, a sub-entry of wŭ (五). Only căi-sè-de (彩色的colorful) is the best candidate for in practical use, it is abbreviated as one Chinese character căi (彩colorful) without changing the meaning.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest regarding the publication of this paper.


[1] Berlin, B., & Kay, P. (1991[1969]). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[2] Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.
[3] MacMillan English Dictionary.
[4] Oxford English Dictionary.
[5] (HTOED) The Historical Thesaurus of English. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.

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